Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Pesach Yizkor, 5773
April 1, 2013
A heart-warming story reminds us of what we shall be remembered for. As Yizkor brings our loved ones to our side once again, turning minutes into sacred moments, we come to understand our choices.
The People Who Touched Our Lives
As an old tennis player, I remember the sweet spot on the racquet. Well, this morning I’d like to share a story that touched a sweet spot in my heart. The story by an anonymous author is entitled “Red Marbles.” It goes as follows:
“I was at the corner grocery store buying some early potatoes. I noticed a small boy, delicate of bone and feature, ragged but clean, hungrily appraising a basket of freshly picked green peas. I paid for my potatoes but was also drawn to the display of fresh green peas. I am a pushover for creamed peas and new potatoes. Pondering the peas, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation between Mr. Miller (the store owner) and the ragged boy next to me.”
‘Hello Barry, how are you today?
‘H’lo, Mr. Miller. Fine, thank ya. Jus’ admirin’ them peas. They sure look good.’
‘They are good, Barry. How’s your Ma?’
‘Fine. Gittin’ stronger alla’ time.’
‘Good. Anything I can help you with?’
‘No, Sir. Jus’ admirin’ them peas.’
‘Would you like to take some home?’ asked Mr. Miller.
‘No, Sir. Got nuthin’ to pay for ’em with.’
‘Well, what have you to trade me for some of those peas?’
‘All I got’s my prize marble here.’
‘Is that right? Let me see it’ said Mr. Miller.
‘Here ’tis. She’s a dandy.’
‘I can see that. Hmmmmmm, only thing is this one is blue and I sort of go for red.
Do you have a red one like this at home?’ the store owner asked.
‘Not zackley but almost.’
‘Tell you what. Take this sack of peas home with you – and next trip this way, let me
look at that red marble’, Mr. Miller told the boy.
‘Sure will. Thanks, Mr. Miller.’
“Mrs. Miller, who had been standing nearby, came over to help me. With a smile she said, ‘There are two other boys like him in our community; all three are in very poor circumstances. Jim just loves to bargain with them for peas, apples, tomatoes, or whatever. When they come back with their red marbles, and they always do, he decides he doesn’t like red after all, and he sends them home with a bag of produce for a green marble or an orange one when they come on their next trip to the store.’ I left the store smiling to myself, impressed with this man.
“A short time later I moved to Colorado, but I never forgot the story of this man, the boys, and their bartering for marbles.
“Several years went by, each more rapid than the previous one. Just recently I had occasion to visit some old friends in that Idaho community. While I was there, I learned that Mr. Miller had died. They were having his visitation that evening and, knowing my friends wanted to go, I agreed to accompany them.
“Upon arrival at the mortuary, we fell into line to meet the relatives of the deceased and to offer whatever words of comfort we could. Ahead of us in line were three young men. One was in an army uniform and the other two wore nice haircuts, dark suits and white shirts . . . all very professional-looking. They approached Mrs. Miller, who was standing composed and smiling by her husband’s casket. Each of the young men hugged her, kissed her on the cheek, spoke briefly with her, and moved on to the casket.
“Her misty light blue eyes followed them as, one-by-one, each young man stopped briefly and placed his own warm hand over the cold, pale hand in the casket. Each left the mortuary awkwardly, wiping his eyes.
“Our turn came to meet Mrs. Miller. I told her who I was and reminded her of the story from those many years ago and what she had told me about her husband’s bartering for marbles. With her eyes glistening, she took my hand and led me to the casket.
“Those three young men who just left were the boys I told you about. They just told me how they appreciated the things Jim ‘traded’ them. Now, at last, when Jim could not change his mind about color or size . . . they came to pay their ‘debt’.”
“We’ve never had a great deal of the wealth of this world”, she confided, “but right now, Jim would consider himself the richest man in Idaho.” With loving gentleness, she lifted the lifeless fingers of her deceased husband. Resting underneath were three exquisitely shined red marbles.
“The Moral: We will not be remembered by our words but by our kind deeds. It’s not what you gather but what you scatter that tells what kind of life you have lived.”
Albert Einstein wrote, “Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. But one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other . . . I know how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving”.
We recite Yizkor, prayers to remember those who have departed this life on earth. We remember what we gave and what we received. The prayers are for close relatives, including grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses and children. We also say these prayers for friends, members of our congregation. Each of us has people who touched our lives, like Mr. Miller in the story we just heard. Yizkor brings us back to memory, and we let ourselves reflect on the legacy of those we have known. Some memories are too raw to embrace, others too soft to wrestle with, and other memories still may bring only sadness or pain.
The beauty of Yizkor is that sometimes, with perspective, things are seen differently or more accurately, in their reflection rather than looking at them directly. During Yizkor I think that we stand at the place where life and death meet. We look back at our life and wonder – how do I want to be remembered. What really matters to me? Where am I in my life? How do I choose to remember the person who is gone? How will the memories help me to live my life more authentically, with optimism, courage and hope.
Rabbi Shira Milgrom wrote a prayer for this process:
Blessed are you, Ruling Spirit of the Universe,
Who has put eternity into our hearts,
The gift to see with the eye of memory,
And implanted within us a vision of life everlasting.
We shall begin our Yizkor service shortly. There really are only a few prayers, and then we are left with moments of silence to think about and feel the losses. During that time, I invite you this morning to close your eyes and imagine having someone you long for standing next to you. Envision them in your mind’s eye and heart. Who are they? Imagine what they would be wearing. Are they smiling at you? What do they say to you? What do you want to tell them?
Perhaps we say, “I’m a new parent” and introduce them to the child or grandchild they never met. You might tell them about your work, family and friends. Maybe you’ll say, “Thank you for all you did”. We might apologize for hurting them or grant them forgiveness for hurting us, or we might simply say, “I love you and I miss you very deeply”.
During these Yizkor moments, see them, hear them, touch them; and make peace with yourself, your beloved, and with the Holy One within. Then we will have transformed these ordinary minutes into sacred moments, a holy place and time.
I conclude with a wise poem entitled “Choices After Death” by David Harkins:
You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that he will come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all that he’s left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live for yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she’s gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back,
or you can do what he’d want, smile, open your eyes, love and go on.
The choices are ours to make.
Our Yizkor Service begins on page 546.
– I am grateful to Rabbi Toba August for much of this message.